Sunday, April 25, 2010

USA: Pittsburgh's Spectacular Rodef Sholom

Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom, Henry Hornbostel, architect. Sanctuary. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber (2010)

USA: Henry Hornbostel's Congregation Rodef Shalom and the Architecture of Carnegie-Mellon University

a few weeks ago I was in Pittsburgh visiting the campus of Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), and staying nearby at the house of friend on Morewood Avenue. Traveling from house to campus I passed the wonderful Rodef Shalom synagogue, one of the masterpieces of early 20th century synagogue design - the American answer to many of the European central-plan and domed extravaganzas of the early century (Szeged, Subotica, Sofia, etc.)

The Reform synagogue was designed by the firm of Palmer & Hornbostel, and it is Henry Hornbostel's design. The following account of Hornbostel's work quotes from the text and notes of my 2003 book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community, pp. 40-45, 229-230.

Hornbostel was one of America’s foremost classicists, for for this project he employed a more contemporary European style. Hornbostel graduated in 1891 at the head of his class at the School of Mines at Columbia University, and shortly thereafter left for Paris where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and where he worked for Charles-Louis Girault (1851-1932), a prominent practitioner of the decorative classicism popular at the turn-of-the-century. The style is most evident in the 1900 Paris exhibition, for which Girault designed the Petit Palais.

Hornbostel arrived in Pittsburgh in 1904 as the architect of the new Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he also founded the school of architecture and served as its first director. With William Palmer he designed the Pittsburgh City Hall (1910) and the Soldier and Sailors Memorial (1911), as well as dozens a major buildings and monuments across the country (See Steven McLeod Bedford, “Hornbostel, Henry,” in Adolf K. Placzek, ed., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects, 2 (New York: The Free Press, 1982). 420-21.)

Rodef Shalom is the oldest Jewish Congregation in western Pennsylvania. The first building was erected in 1862 on Hancock Street (later Eighth Street), designed by Charles Bartberger. Within a year, the congregation became a leader of the new Reform movement. Services were shortened, the women would sit with the men and an organ was installed. By 1874, the practice of wearing of a hat or yarmulke by the men was abolished, and Rodef Shalom joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Reform leadership was cemented when the Temple hosted a conference of Reform rabbis in 1885, who created the "Pittsburgh Platform'' that guided Reform Judaism until 1937 when a different Platform was adopted.

In my book I wrote that "legend has it that Hornbostel beat out Albert Kahn" (who had designed Detroit's Beth El) for the commission. Martha Berg, archivist of Rodef Shalom has since informed me that not only did Palmer & Hornbostel beat Kahn, but that six distinguished architectural firms had been invited to submit designs for the building. These also included Allison & Allison of Pittsburgh and Charles Bickel of Pittsburgh; as well as George Post & Sons of New York; and Pilcher & Tachau of New York. According the Berg, Bickel had designed the second Rodef Shalom building just a few years before (1901) on the site the first building. About the same time Tachau also lost out on the competition for Temple Adath Israel in is native city of Louisville, be shortly afterward he and Pilcher would design the innovative classical style Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, and Tachau would go on to design several more impressive synagogues through the 1920s and also write about synagogue architecture.

I further wrote:
The result of the competition was quite new to American synagogue architecture, while still within the tasteful norms of Jewish mercantile-industrial society. Rodeph Shalom, built in 1907, has a distinctly Central European flavor, quite distinct from Hornbostel’s otherwise mostly Classical oeuvre. Architectural historian Franklin Toker has cited the 1883 Budapest train station as a possible source for Hornbostel’s design. The design also recalls world’s fair pavilions, such as those for the Paris Exposition of 1900, on which Hornbostel worked with his teacher at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, C. L. Girault.

The Reform synagogue is situated at the northwest corner of Fifth and Morewood Avenues in Pittsburgh’s fashionable Oakland section, close to several churches, including the 1904 Classical First Church of Christ, Scientist located directly across the street and designed by Chicago architect S.S. Beman.

It is typical of many “second settlement” synagogues of the period, erected as public buildings around parks and newly designed civic centers for more affluent Jewish populations that had removed themselves from dense urban neighborhoods.
The synagogue is divided into three main parts: the ornate entrance, the sanctuary cube, and the squared dome that surmounts it. The inside reflects similar shapes and motifs, but the decoration is enlivened with applied ornament in the style of Louis Sullivan, and a sensitive use of natural and artificial light. Historian Toker has noted, “Unlike most pre-modern synagogues, there is nothing fake-Moorish here, although the dazzling colors on the terra-cotta bands (now faded) hint so strongly at orientalism that passersby know instinctively that this is not a church.”

One of the significant innovations in the design was the introduction of color—both inside and out. The architectural press of the time stated that the work was "artistically accomplished as to present an attractive and harmonious effect. The entrance feature and the frieze that encircles the building, executed by the Atlantic Terra-Cotta Co., may be regarded as one of the most successful attempts in this direction that has been accomplished in this country. The entire building, with its green dome, buff brick, the polychromatic effect of the terra-cotta, presents an effect highly creditable to the architect and a delightfully restful spot in what would otherwise be a monotonous and uninteresting thoroughfare." (The American Architect and Building News, XCIII: 1682 (March 18, 1908).

The groined dome of double shell construction is entirely composed of Guastavino tile and has a clear span of 92 feet. The tile is strong enough to replace the steel construction originally intended. The upper, or exposed, shell of the dome is covered with green glazed terra-cotta tiles. Inside, the dome is covered with decorative plaster. At the center is a large octagonal stained-glass skylight.

The sanctuary was designed to seat 1,100 people on the ground floor; with additional seating for 350 in the gallery at the rear. A 20-foot-high oak wainscot runs around the sanctuary wall, above which are large stained-glass memorial windows. The windows, made by the Willett Studio, are unusual, but part of a growing trend at the time of including figural compositions. A large stained-glass window of Moses, for example, was included in the Ark wall of the De Hirsch Synagogue in Seattle, also built in 1907. While all the scenes at Rodeph Shalom come from the Hebrew Bible, the artist clearly drew from Christian iconography. “Mercy and Judgment” depicts a bearded man carrying a child and a woman on the ground who represents the despair of poverty. “Moses interceding for his people” shows Moses praying on a hill, in a manner commonly used in renderings of the contemplative Jesus. In “Ruth and Naomi” two women embrace, similar to church scenes of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. A visitor sitting by the bedside of a sick girl and, above, two angels carrying the soul of the deceased in a typically Christian manner is the subject of “Charity.”

As in many new synagogues of the period, individual, theater-style seats are used, and each rack of seats terminates at the aisle with a pew end or post. The engineering of the synagogue, as well as its religious programming, were up-to-date—it was mechanically ventilated and heated by direct steam system. A Sunday school was placed in a wing to the rear of the main auditorium along with an assembly room, classroom, clubroom, library, and rabbi’s study.

Pittsburgh, PA. , Hamerschlag Hall 9Originally Machinery Hall, 1912), Carnegie-Mellon University, Henry Hornbostel, architect. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2010)

In 2003, I focused more on the place of this synagogue in the Jewish context, but not in its local context, except to mention its proximity to the First Church of Christ Scientist. Though I mentioned that that congregation was able to engage Hornbostel because he was on site as Andrew Carnegie's architect of the new Carnegie Technical Institute (now CMU), I didn't relate the synagogue to the Carnegie designs. This was a mistake, because it is only in the context of the campus buildings that one fully understands the significance of Rodef Shalom's design. The things that are similar are important, and so are the distinctions.

Pittsburgh, PA. , Carnegie-Mellon University, Building dtls, Henry Hornbostel, architect. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber (2010)

Much of the constructional detail of the synagogue - the yellow brick, decorative tilework and use of Guastovino vaulting - is also fond in the CMU buildings (competition 1903, open 1906 ff), and this continuity links synagogue to campus. That in itself is a remarkable association at the time since overt Jewish presence on or even near American campuses was virtually unknown. The CMU buildings, however, are more overly classical in design, something Hornbostel and the congregation chose to avoid in the new synagogue...thus making it a stylistic exception to the many new classical-style Reform synagogues being erected across American in the first decade of the 20th century (about which more in an upcoming article.

Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom, Henry Hornbostel, architect. Sanctuary. Photo: Paul Rocheleau

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